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Kemp’s View From Under the Bus

There’s a fine line between courage and stupidity.

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp announced Monday that his state would begin allowing certain businesses to reopen starting this Friday, with others to follow the following week. It is, naturally, a controversial decision, placing Georgia firmly in the vanguard of states re-opening their economies in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Is this a bold stroke of leadership that will give precious oxygen to a state economy that is on life support, or is it a suicidal assault on an intractable pandemic that will condemn thousands of citizens to actual life support?

Whatever the scientific reasoning (and Governor Kemp invoked a fair amount of it in his announcement Monday), Kemp may have hoped for a political bonus by making this move only a couple of days after President Trump advocated via tweet to “liberate” Virginia, Michigan, and Minnesota. That hope evaporated yesterday evening when President Trump said that he “totally disagreed” with Governor Kemp’s decision.

The political fallout is predictable. Kemp Senate appointee Kelly Loeffler got on board with Governor Kemp early, voicing her support on a tele-town hall with Governor Kemp shortly before Trump’s briefing pulled the rug out from under them. This abrupt turn prompted the campaign of rival Doug Collins to offer a gloat that one can’t help but admire:

“Poor Kelly did this to herself. She asked Brian to help her across the political street and they both got hit by a bus,” said Collins spokesman Dan McLagan. “Which then got backed over them. And caught fire.”

Republicans are caught in a difficult position. Collins, whom Kemp passed over in appointing Loeffler to the Senate over President Trump’s wishes, has no reason to be loyal to Kemp. But most other Georgia Republicans are not so eager to wade into an argument.

Hamstring a governor that the left has been eager to attack due to its bitterness over losing the recent election? Or invoke the wrath of a President that is popular with your party’s base? One suspects most politicians would rather share a toothbrush with a COVID-19 patient than choose between their governor and their president.

It’s an unpalatable political choice, but perhaps for Kemp this removes an obstacle that many states face as the call for re-opening grows: the obstacle of political risk.

On 9/11, a number of defensive measures were taken that would seem, in retrospect, to be overreactions. Hundreds of high rises in dozens of cities around the country were evacuated, and every plane was grounded for days. Did those measures actually prevent any attacks? It turns out that they did not, but nobody is critical of those decisions, because there was so much that we didn’t know at the time, and we were afraid.

In the same way, most governors have faced little political risk in their decisions to close their states. A couple of governors (one of which, I am forced to admit, is California’s Gavin Newsom) took restrictive steps early, before fears were widespread. However, by the time most governors closed schools and enacted distancing orders, the tide had turned. If they were later found to be overreacting, it would not be seriously held against them, because they were acting in exactly the same way as everybody else.

The decision to re-open state economies carries far more risk, because the cost of being wrong could be enormously high. If a state re-starts its economy too early and suffers a massive outbreak of COVID-19 that kills thousands of citizens, the leader responsible for that decision will fully bear that responsibility. Their political career would be over.

The result, though, is that most states are sitting around, nervously eying each other, waiting for another to make a move. Nobody wants to be the first to re-open and wind up being wrong. Far better to be the tenth to re-open, just a bit later, with nine governors to hide behind if everything goes south.

Governor Kemp is now in the unique position of being liberated from the political question. Any cover he was hoping for from the President or from other states is gone, and he is out in front whether he wants to be or not. His choice is unpopular with the left, and he has no cover from the right. He is left with no alternative but to do what he was elected to do: He must lead.

It’s a simple path, really. If he retreats from his position now, it is a concession that the initial decision was dependent upon support from the President, and he will destroy his own credibility. He must go forward with his plan, defend it, and wait to see what happens.

It will work, and Georgia’s economy will benefit enough to offset the consequences of any further spread of the disease, and his decision will be lauded as courageous. Or it won’t work, and the people will suffer, and his decision will be pilloried as stupid.

At least he doesn’t have to worry about what the President thinks anymore.

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